Israel’s frontline fighter force could remain crippled for weeks, if not months, due to delays in recovering key parts of a Pratt & Whitney powered F-16I from deep waters off Israel’s southern Mediterranean coast following a July 7 crash.
An Israel Air Force (IAF) source said recovery of the F100-PW-229-powered aircraft is essential for determining the cause of the crash that prompted a force-wide grounding of F-16I and F-15I fighters, all powered by the same US-made engine.
But after nearly a week-long search by Israeli Navy divers and robotic operators, defense officials are mulling options for “external assistance” in locating key parts of the F-16I Sufa (Storm) and its engine up to 500 meter-deep waters.
Sources say options include requests to the US Navy or other friendly nations with advanced recovery capabilities or commercial firms experienced in eastern Mediterranean operations in support of Israel’s offshore energy sector.
Either way, sources here say recovery options could take weeks prior to launching a formal investigation into the July 7 Class A crash.
Meanwhile, extensive diagnostic testing and debriefing of the pilot and weapon system officer who survived the crash appear to have ruled out human error, the IAF source said. The two-man crew appear to have been “compliant” with operational regulations and safety procedures when the engine stalled 25 minutes into a “routine flight in a designated training area” in international waters some 50 kilometers off the Israeli coast.
“We’re doing as much as we can through a diagnostic process of elimination, but the Air Force commander is demanding a high-level of confidence in the technology before he can start easing grounding restrictions,” the source said of Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, who ordered halts in all but “absolutely essential operational missions.”
The source added that the IAF routinely trains in areas that could pose “a serious problem” – beyond obvious dangers to crew and air assets – should another crash occur. “We don’t have the privilege of conducting all of our exercises in safe places,” he said.
A retired senior IAF general said an investigation could take months, or even years. Nevertheless, he expressed confidence in Eshel’s management of the current crisis. “He knows you don’t just ground assets indefinitely; that you must determine the minimum conditions needed to start returning these planes to flight,” the former officer told Defense News.
Pratt & Whitney spokesman Matthew Bates said analysis of the flight data recorder would begin once the equipment is recovered. “Pratt & Whitney is cooperating fully with the IAF to investigate the cause of the crash,” he said.
He added that the firm’s family of F-100 engines, including the PW-229 powering Israel’s frontline fighter fleet, has accumulated more than 24 million flight hours in 22 countries over nearly four decades.